HOMELAND SECURITY

Former CBP Commissioner Has Few Kind Words for Congress

10/1/2011
By Stew Magnuson
The “two dumbest things” Congress asked former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham to do was build a 2,000-mile fence in the Southwest and to “inspect every maritime container coming into this country before it left its port of origin.”

“Yet the commissioner here is still under that mandate,” Basham said pointing to Alan D. Bersin, the man who currently holds his former position.

Basham spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. three days before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

He was joined by Bersin and the first commissioner, Robert C. Bonner, to discuss the history and future of the eight-year-old agency.

Basham recalled taking a three-day tour of the Arizona border with the “former speaker of the House” (Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., although he didn’t mention him by name).

The lawmaker pointed to a penitentiary with high concrete walls topped by barbed wire fence and said that was what was needed all along the border. It took the entire trip to convince him that a three-pronged approach of more manpower, technology and fences would do a better job.

“Congress was making decisions never understanding what the challenges were. And we were chasing our tail literally trying to keep up with these mandates,” Basham said.

Bersin, while avoiding some of Basham’s strident criticism of Congress, suggested that there are better ways of dealing with security threats other than knee-jerk mandates.

The October 2010 Yemen-based plot to blow up air cargo carriers over U.S. skies is one example. From day one, CBP brought in members of the industry to come up with new procedures to fill the security gaps. The response was “co-created” by government and industry. Most of the infrastructure CBP protects is in the private sector’s hands, he noted.

That case will be a model on how CBP works with industry to solve problems, he said.

“Congress operates with a very broad hammer,” Bersin said. “And I think what we’ve learned at CBP and DHS is that we are better advised to take the initiative with these problems and take action.”

Basham said one of the main vulnerabilities the nation still faces is the small boat threat. A USS Cole-style attack at a Southern California port would be relatively simple to carry out and economically devastating.

Bonner agreed: “Forty-five percent of cargo containers come through the Port of Long Beach, so it would be massively disruptive,” he said.

“We do have vulnerabilities and there are gaps,” Bersin said. “Small boats is one of them.”

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Leadership

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